Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (1)

Research can send you off on all sorts of tangents – particularly if don’t have to be focused. What fascinating things you can find when you go with the flow (in the wonderful Trove)! It started with my recent post on Currawong Press, which, somewhat serendipitously, led to a post on books published in The Australian Women’s Weekly. It also led to this one on literary (or reading) tastes in 1920s to 1940s Australia, through an article published in the Sun in 1947 which mentioned the strange fact that some books by Currawong Press on taxation had become best-sellers almost overnight, but it said a lot more too …

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckHowever, let me introduce the topic. That Sun article set me off on a trail which uncovered several articles discussing the public’s literary tastes, and how and why the “experts” thought they were changing. The experts were mostly librarians and booksellers. In 1929, The Sydney Morning Herald asked the large circulating libraries whether they’d seen changes from the previous year’s borrowing. Yes, said the librarians. They noted:

  • a changing of the guard in popular authors, but since none of the names – except one – are familiar to me, I won’t detail them. The one I did recognise was identified as “rapidly approaching the status of best-sellers”, Georgina Heyer! Well, I sort of recognised her, as presumably they meant Georgette Heyer. Her books would have been gaining traction around then, and I can’t find a Georgina.
  • a decline in the “sex-novel”, and also in plays. “Once upon a time every play published by Pinero and other popular dramatists sold almost as well as a novel”. How interesting.
  • increased interest in detective and mystery stories, and historical novels
  • increased interest in short story collections. Woo hoo! They write that “a very few years ago publishers hesitated to bring out volumes of short stories. That is all changed now.” Is an increased interest happening again now do you think?
  • increased sales of “standard works” (in “pocket editions”). They were “selling so amazingly well that there is almost evidence enough to show that the general public is being weaned from the frothier varieties of books”

What a fascinating insight into reading habits. I have no idea how “scientific” these observations were, but librarians are very trustworthy people, you know!

The Sunday Mail in 1932 explored changing tastes in detective fiction, arguing that “the reader of to-day wants to pit his brains against those of the detective, and so the mystery novel is assuming more and more the aspect of a mental problem”. When asked, Brisbane booksellers and librarians:

emphasised that there are “thrillers” and “thrillers,” detective stories and detective stories. The popularity of the detective thriller of the Edgar Wallace type, it was explained, was on the decline even before the death of that undoubted master, but not so the intellectual “thriller.”

They describe in some detail what makes an “intellectual thriller”.

The article also mentions increased interest in Australian books, and notes the surprising popularity of Swedish physician Axel Munthe’s The story of San Michele. It apparently “emerged from obscurity into something like the status of a best seller, all because a few people allowed themselves the pleasure of reading it ‘on chance’.” The booksellers said that bestsellers of “today are 100 per cent superior in literary merit to the bestsellers of five and six years ago”. This was the Depression era … I wonder what impact that had on reading tastes.

This idea of improved public taste was repeated in 1933 in an article in the Horsham Times which reported a statement by visiting English publisher John Lane, from Bodley Head. He said

there had been an improvement in the literary taste of the reading public throughout the world, and the demand among the great body of the public to-day was for clean healthy stories and plain dirt had little sale.

I’m not sure that “clean healthy stories” are guaranteed to be “literary”, but probably “plain dirt” isn’t? Lane suggests that “cheap lending libraries [presumably in England] were responsible for changing the literary tastes of readers in the industrial classes from the penny story magazine to volumes, and would eventually raise the literary standard of the masses”. Oh dear, this sounds a bit snooty, but I do like his belief that libraries were helping widen people’s reading tastes.

Now we jump t0 1937, with the Depression on its way out, and an article in Melbourne’s Argus titled “Novels are less popular”. It says that demand was changing, with “tastes more serious”. This came from Melbourne librarians who said that the borrowing of novels had decreased from 75% of their loans to 65%. Prahran Library chief librarian gave a reason for this:

The uncertainty of the international situation in Europe, he said, was resulting in many former readers of fiction asking for such books as Gunthe’s “Inside Europe,” and other works on economics and politics. The depression had made borrowers’ tastes more serious, and there was a growing demand for books on the trades and useful arts.

Interesting eh? Sometimes we hear that in hard times people turn to lighter fare, but apparently not always. Except, the report continues:

The [unnamed] chief librarian at a large city library said that with the return of more prosperous times many persons who had been forced to read during the depression were now finding their relaxation and amusement at the cinema. There had been a large decline in the borrowing of low grade fiction.

Hmm, there’s that “low grade fiction” again. And “forced to read during the depression” suggests that reading was not the entertainment of choice then (as that reader survey says it is in contemporary Australia)? The article quotes the librarian of the Borough of St Pancreas London as also attributing “the decline in the popularity of the novel to the appeal of wireless and cinemas”.

Anyhow, now we come to the 1947 article in Sydney’s Sun which inspired this post. Titled “Tastes in books were changing”, it looks at bookbuying in the lead up to that year’s Christmas.  It opens by stating that “book-buying boom, which began in the war years, is being maintained in the peace”. Booksellers said that:

  • War books were generally “out”, with some exceptions. However, publishers felt that war books would return just as the publication of All Quiet On the Western Front had generated renewed interest in World War 1
  • “Thrillers” were also declining, and “the sale of Westerns was negligible”
  • Australian books were popular, with most booksellers “displaying Australian books on special counters” (something we discussed recently). One firm reported that the sale of Australian books had doubled in recent years: the “First edition of Flying Doctor Calling, by Ernestine Hill (Angus and Robertson), sold out in a week. An Australian classic that keeps on selling and selling is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by Henry Handel Richardson.”
  • Long historical novels were in “big demand”
  • Books about Australia and other countries were very popular. A bookseller suggested that “The quiz craze may have something to do with this thirst for knowledge among Australians”. (Love the quiz craze!)
  • European migrants were keen book buyers, buying “expensive books on politics, art, music
  • Children’s books were selling well, perhaps partly due to “the high price of toys”

The article also discussed the increasing cost of books, but said people were paying the high prices “without demur”. It also noted that “unfortunately for Australian authors the boom in Australian books” had coincided with “unprecedented publishing difficulties”, which they describe in some detail. The situation was so bad that “Some local publishers are more than a year behind in their programmes and there isn’t much likelihood of catching up for a long time to come. Dozens of accepted Australian manuscripts are awaiting publication.” Poor writers.

Through these articles, there’s an ongoing thread of concern about “literary quality”. Do we see this same earnestness about whether people are reading “quality” in book reporting today? Or, are we more tolerant of diverse reading interests?

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (1)

  1. Yes I think the argument of reading quality books is alive and well. Small publishers seem to be conducting the battle here bringing/reviving books in translation to the market. Thinking NYRB here, Pushkin Press, and many others. BUT that said, I’m in favour of reading. Whatever floats your boat as the saying goes. Romance isn’t my thing, but if that’s what someone wants to read, then good for them, I say.

  2. The person who said ‘plain dirt’ was talking in the years immediately after publication of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Great as they are, they were not universally acknowledged!

    • Ah, that’s an interesting point Bill. Because the articles I read tended to focus on genre fiction I didn’t think of the “literary” end, but you could be right that that those controversies might have been the reference. I was frustrated that I couldn’t see any bylines. Bylines seem pretty rare in those older articles.

  3. Hi Sue, wide-ranging reading material encourages more readers, and that is good for everybody. As there is such a variety of writing genres most people can find enjoyment in a book. A friend of mine says she does not read – (horror), but she will pick up a cook book and read that!

    • Very interesting post. I would guess that the librarians very probably fairly good judges of the broad trends of books favoured by the reading public. I think there is more of a tolerance of different types of books- we are a long way from a book like Queenie Leavis’s Fiction And the Reading Public (published sometime in the 1930s, such a mixture of arrogant condescension towards popular fiction mixed in with a real awareness of its history). Is our current tolerance just indifference?

      • Ah, good point re Leavis. And good question. I’d like to think it wasn’t indifference, but a more tolerance that people read different things for different reasons. But I might be being a Pollyanna as I am wont to do.

  4. Thank you so much, what an interesting post and retrospective. I do hope that literary trends in Australia veer towards greater interest in stories that reflect the varied voices, backgrounds and experiences of contemporary Australia’s multi-cultural society. I’d like to see that kind of literature classified as modern Australian lit. rather than the more niche ethnic lit fic. I also hope that publishers trust that trend, trust the readership and allow more books like that to be published. That is a trend I’m looking forward to.

    • Thanks and welcome Shankari, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’d love to hear a little more about what you mean by “the varied voices, backgrounds and experiences of contemporary Australia’s multi-cultural society” versus “more niche ethnic lit fic”. Can you give me some examples? I would certainly love to see increased diversity.

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